The recent damning revelation that dozens of surveillance cameras in Nairobi are dead is a testament to a security system creaking at the corners. It is unconscionable how, the management of security of a city so prone to crime does not maintain such an essential and expensive security infrastructure.
Security installation is not an Egyptian pyramid that, once built, will endure for ages without much attention. Someone should always have his finger on the pulse of security infrastructure and have it repaired immediately it breaks. Furthermore, a backup plan should be in place and should kick into action immediately the primary system falters.
Major Kenyan cities should remain under surveillance 24/7 through a centralised surveillance centre connected to a web of hard-to-break camera system and manned by a highly trained team.
The team should review the camera feeds in real-time and in coordination with sleuth-eyed police on the beat, ready to swing into action on a moment’s notice.
But we should also not treat CCTV system as the capstone for security. CCTV system is only one of many tools in the security toolbox. Cameras are best at deterring crime. They are not a magic bullet for all security problems. In fact, no one security system is foolproof: studies have shown that cameras are more effective in reducing petty crimes.
Overreliance on the CCTV cameras could also promote a false sense of security and lead citizens to drop their guards. They could also enable reporting of more crimes than before, thus leading to a perceived increase in crime.
Here is where everyone need to pay attention: smart cameras on the streets read car number plates and send the information to a central system which police can use to look up in other databases and tell who owns the car.
Whereas ability to collate and corroborate information is a good feature in bursting crime, use of smart surveillance cameras that are able to detect, recognise, analyse and track people and vehicles have their downside.
Officers in the control room can use the camera-collected information to glean a lot more information about people, regardless of whether they are persons of interest or not. Ill-intentioned officers can go on a fishing expedition harvesting oceans of personal and privileged information for virtually everyone who drive on our roads, thereby tainting a good idea.
Surveillance systems, therefore need to be subject to checks and balances so that they do not evolve into surveillance monsters.
Whereas the CCTV system in Nairobi is obviously fractured, it is a vital tool for fighting crime that should not be allowed to fall apart. But, as with other critical installations, independent oversight is imperative. An external body should be charged with ensuring that systems respect the public’s rights.